By Romaissaa Benzizoune
August 26, 2016
There really is no great way to describe my newest Burkini. There is no shape that it takes on, no existing style that it resembles, no problem that it effectively solves. It impedes both modesty and actual swimming, costs more than $100 plus shipping, and can be secured only with an array of hooks, straps and elastic bands.
It is completely and entirely Barbie pink.
And according to Mayor David Lisnard of Cannes, if worn on a beach in his French city, it is “unwelcome.” It is a “symbol of Islamic extremism.” It may “create risks of disrupting public order.” I get the feeling that he is not talking about its colour or functionality or the vast room for improvement designers have when it comes to modest wear. Which is a real shame — in another world; together we could’ve started a fashion revolution.
I get the feeling that he wouldn’t understand the irony of his statements even if I explained it to him. A prime example of “Islamic extremism” is forbidding Muslim women to swim at a beach as they please. It is restricting their apparel choices, robbing their free will, making rules about how they should present themselves in public. It is a group of armed police officers cornering a Muslim woman and appearing to force her to take off her modest attire in the middle of a crowded Nice beach.
I’ve cycled through many swimsuits in the 18 years of my young life: sleek Speedo one-pieces, matching short-sleeved tops and trunks, a decent looking Burkini in navy blue and this absolute nightmare in Barbie pink. For more than 10 of those 18 years, I have worn a head scarf. The modesty of my swimsuits has increased with my age and my dedication to Islam, but I have been the same person underneath them all.
In my mind, the Burkini was always the practical, inevitable swimwear goal; the final stage in my journey to becoming a proper Hijabi. Making the purchase (more accurately, making my mom make the purchase) signified my transition. I recognized that it would be contradictory to wear a Hijab on the street and a bikini in the pool: This Islamic lifestyle — unlike my ill-fated vegetarian phase or my no-added-sugar diet — was forever, even when it was not particularly fashionable or understood.
Like other recent acts of Islamophobia — an imam and his assistant shot dead in my hometown, Queens, for example — the Burkini ban says, you are unwelcome here; you are a symbol of Islamic extremism; you are an object to be banned; you are the smoke that the Islamic State left behind.
But worse than being personal, this latest attack is regressive. It says to me: Your deepest fears have been valid all along. You can’t even swim in a pool or enjoy a beach day without being watched. Without the world’s hatred coating you like a second skin. You will be a college freshman in the fall but never a blank slate.
It brings me back to my middle school days.
My Burkini debut was witnessed by my entire eighth-grade class as part of our mandatory swimming course. It should have been fine. My kind gym teacher had given my swimsuit the O.K. beforehand, and I knew that most of my classmates were open-minded. But these facts did not cross my mind when I emerged from the bathroom stall — I always changed in a bathroom stall — a 13-year-old girl, wearing something that no one else in the class would. I still remember the stares as I padded down the locker room, fully cloaked except for my feet, face, and hands. I walked past bleachers full of crushes, friends and enemies for my individual swimming test.
My exit from the pool sticks with me to this day. All my classmates looked and sounded like extras in a music video as they emerged from the water. I looked and sounded like Niagara Falls: All of the water that had amassed under the six feet or so of navy cloth roared out from under me as I climbed up the pool ladder. Slow sucking noises replaced the roar as the cloth stuck to every square inch of my body. Burkini insecurities, body insecurities and social insecurities towered higher than any diving board I could hope to reach.
For a long time afterward, I preferred skipping beach invitations and avoiding swimming pools over appearing in my suit in public. To cover up in an environment that seemed to revolve solely around the bikini body would alienate me further from the idea of being normal, being a teenager, being an American. The fact that there were few fashionable and functional Burkini options in existence seemed to validate my choice.
When I first heard about French towns banning Burkinis, I thought about those middle school stares, and the possible misunderstandings behind them. This summer, when I saw myself in my pink Burkini for the first time, it was with the eyes of a Western stranger. When I looked at my reflection I did not see the swimsuit that I had carefully ordered online using my mother’s PayPal account. I saw a full-length, foreign thing — a monstrous, graceless, not-quite-a-diving-suit thing — clinging to my body.
I have spent this summer in Morocco, the country of my origin, where the ocean and sand and sunshine are not as spoken for, where it is very common to see women in their Jilbabs and Niqabs and full outfits swimming freely, where my pink Burkini finds its place. Whole beaches, whole afternoons full of laughter and Arabic chatter and no “risks of disrupting public order.”
I want to tell Mayor Lisnard that I have struggled with worse types of fear than whatever scares him about these bathing suits: the internalized kind, the irrational middle-school kind. I want to tell him that the only time I even came close to being a threat to public order was when I was learning how to in-line skate. That I’ve been listening to a lot of Drake lately, that I’m looking forward to my freshman year in college but not the freshman 15. That I have a cousin in his country and she just had her first child, a girl.
Romaissaa Benzizoune will begin her freshman year in college next month.